My Disney Top 5 - Things to See in Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdomby Chris Barry, contributing writer
"Holy mackerel!" was the phrase that came out of my mouth. Only I didn't quite use the word mackerel. That was my verbal response the very first time I walked into Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom. I finally made it into Pandora this past March on a school trip I was chaperoning with 50 choral students. The leader of the trip, my good friend and fellow Walt Disney World enthusiast Ed, and I walked in and our jaws collectively hit the floor. We couldn't walk or even move at a normal pace as we tried to comprehend just what Disney had created here on the grounds of the former Camp Minnie Mickey. It was extraordinary. It was breathtaking. It had to be taken in and taken in slowly to really appreciate everything we were looking at. We didn't even speak. We just stopped in our tracks, slowly turned towards each other and exchanged this crazy look that I'll never forget. We couldn't believe what we were seeing and it was astonishing just how good it looked.
On that particular trip, we weren't able to get a Fastpass for either of Pandora's two attractions and we really didn't have the time to wait on giant lines. So, walking around and checking it all out was going to have to suffice for the time being, and as much as I was dying to get into the rides, I was pretty thrilled to just be seeing what has to be referred to as the most visually stunning land that Disney has constructed to date. I also knew that I had a full-blown Walt Disney World vacation booked for the upcoming summer, and therefore knew that I'd be back in a few months. I was resolutely determined to get into both of Pandora's attractions this past July and woke up early 60 days in advance to successfully score my FastPasses. I had everything I needed and all that was left was to just count the days until I would be back. It's been almost two months since that big summer trip and what were my feelings about Pandora upon my triumphant return? Let's take a look with my Top 5 things to see in Pandora - the World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
5 – Satu'li Canteen
With the expectations and crowds running high for Pandora, there had to be a sizable restaurant in this new corner of Animal Kingdom and the Satu'li Canteen fits the bill nicely. There's both indoor and outdoor seating and Pandora's dining establishment is chock full of Na'vi art and references to the film to be enjoyed as you savor the interesting menu.
Considering how popular this area was expected to be, Disney could have gone with much safer options familiar to the average American traveler's palate. Thankfully, they decided to go in a different direction. Customizable dining like Chipotle and Blaze pizza is a popular trend in the ever growing "fast casual" food market. Guests at Satu'li Canteen get to choose their protein, base, and sauce from a short list at the register and then wait at the pickup counter for their delectable concoctions to come forth.
I ordered the slow-roasted sliced grilled beef on a quinoa and vegetable salad base with the charred onion chimichurri sauce, and I was extremely happy. It was accompanied by some delicious crunchy vegetable slaw and yogurt boba balls. It's quite a refreshing change from chicken nuggets and fries, and to my taste, is one of the better counter service meals available in Walt Disney World at this time. I would also recommend the steamed cheeseburger pods—steamed bao stuffed with all the yummy cheeseburger components you'd want. And if you want something more typical but still sinfully delicious order the teylu all-beef hot dog wrapped in dough from the kid's menu. Boy is that tasty! The Canteen was a big hit with everyone on our trip. Don't pass it up.
4 – Explore the Valley of Mo'ara
As I said above, my first Pandora experience consisted of no rides, no restaurant, not even the gift shop. All we did was walk around the Valley of Mo'ara soaking in all of the amazing vistas and details. It needs to be seen. Sure, make sure you get on the rides. They're excellent. But don't forget to explore the land thoroughly.
You can't fail to be amazed by the floating islands, the waterfalls, and the incredible looking flora of all shapes and sizes that surround you as you walk through the land. Stroll down all the paths. Beat the drums. Cross the bridges. Take plenty of photographs. Although, don't expect them to even come close to doing justice to actually being there because the atmosphere and visuals that the Imagineers created throughout Pandora are simply extraordinary and demand to be experienced in person.
3 – Na'vi River Journey
We didn't have Fastpass for the Na'vi River Journey, but were determined to get on the ride. One morning, we ventured out to Animal Kingdom before opening and were there at rope drop. We had already experienced the awesomeness that is Flight of Passage, so while the majority of guests were lining up for the long wait for Pandora's signature attraction, we easily broke to the left and were rewarded by a 20-minute wait for the Na'vi River Journey.
Now, truth be told, I've heard some negative online comments about this attraction and I can't begin to fathom why. Everyone in our party thought the river journey was breathtakingly beautiful. Sure, it's a simple Disney boat ride like Pirates of the Caribbean and "it's a small world," but the fact that you're riding in a slow-moving boat is where the similarities cease. I thought the atmosphere and details created in both the queue and the attraction itself were stunning to behold.
Don't go expecting a thrilling ride, but why should you? The film is about capturing the alluring and natural beauty of this very unique world and the Na'vi River Journey succeeds in driving that message home. The waterfalls, the glowing plants, the layers of video screens depicting Pandora's wildlife are all impressive to say the least and the animatronic figure highlighted at the end is stunningly lifelike. It's a wonderful attraction and shouldn't be missed.
2 – Avatar Flight of Passage
We managed to score two sets of Fastpass reservations for Pandora's mega headliner, Avatar Flight of Passage on two separate days, and I'm so glad we did because this is an experience worth repeating. In my humble opinion, this is the most impressive attraction on Disney property right now. We were simply bursting with anticipation the first time as we walked through the incredibly detailed queue and that anticipation carried through the second time around because we now knew the wonder that lay ahead.
Flight of Passage is simply thrilling. Disney has taken the 3-D simulator experience to new heights, pardon the pun. I have yet to feel anything that comes close to flying my banshee over the wilderness and beauty that is Pandora, feeling his lungs breathe between my legs. I can't even begin to imagine all the visuals that were before me. The screen is just bursting with creatures and details, too many to even process. It's an astonishing accomplishment, one that sticks with you for a while after deboarding your banshee.
1 – See it at night
What can be better than the incredible beauty of Pandora? Seeing it in the daylight and then coming back to experience it in the dark. I can remember back on the March trip walking out of Pandora with one of my fellow chaperones after spending an hour or so there in the morning. I was looking down at the walkway and realized that the path was seemingly covered in some sort of glow in the dark paint. The notion that we were going to be coming back that evening to see Pandora glow at night literally gave me goosebumps. It was a total Disney geek out moment only superseded by actually crossing the bridge and seeing the land at night.
To me, most Disney parks truly come alive after dark. The Imagineers in charge of lighting the various lands are true artists in my eyes. They manage to take a place that's just about as magical as you can get and transform it into something completely different and even more beautiful. Pandora at night is the pinnacle of that particular art form. There's quite simply nothing else like it. If you thought it looked amazing in the daylight, make sure you return at night. It's unbelievable what they've done back there.
The wait to come back to Pandora was well worth it and the land truly paid off for me. I've never been a big supporter of Disney's decision to sink so much of their money and effort into Avatar. I knew they were going to do something special with it. I just wasn't sure that the emotional connection was there and to a certain degree, I still don't think it is. My kids have seen the film, but don't have the connection to the characters like they do in other cinematic universes like Star Wars, The Avengers, or Harry Potter. I always like to say that my mom knows who Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are but couldn't begin to tell you anything about Avatar.
I understand that for years, it was the most successful film of all time and I know there are several more to come, but are people going to fall in love with the land and have that emotional connection to it? The simple answer, at least in my case is, "Sure." It's a different connection though. My bond with Pandora is now due to the land that the Imagineers created. It's now etched into my Disney psyche much the same way that Peter Pan's Flight, Space Mountain and Expedition Everest are. Now that I've been there and experienced all the land has, I can't imagine a future Disney trip without it. I still can't tell you who Sigourney Weaver's character is or the name of the actor in the lead role and who his character is. But one thing is for sure, I will be back in Pandora - The World of Avatar as soon as I can. It's awesome and I can't wait to be there again. I will say that the one thing that Pandora has done for me is to get me completely and totally even more psyched up for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. My guess is that the Imagineers are going to take the work and details that they sunk into Pandora and "turn it up to 11" for Star Wars. As if I wasn't already beside myself excited!
With this trip through Pandora - The World of Avatar, I've now completed a journey documenting each and every land in all of the four Walt Disney World theme parks. I started this journey with you back in March of 2017 on Main Street U.S.A! It's been an amazing journey through the magical lands and worlds created by Disney's Imagineers. I've loved your comments and lists and the discussions that have been started. Thanks so much for being the best group of readers a writer could ever hope for. I'm far from done. I have a ton of great ideas for where this column is going to go next as I continue to document everything about Walt Disney World that keeps on inspiring me and that silly, magical inner child hiding just below the surface of this, purportedly, 50-year-old grownup.
As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below, let me hear your thoughts on Pandora - The World of Avatar and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.